Off All the Standard Maps

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The only time I have been to Greece as it appears on the modern map was when I was barely out of short trousers. I went with that indispensable aid to travel, an aunt, and with the idea that I knew quite a lot about the place. My aorists and iota subscripts, however, were useless; that crucial moment for quoting Simonides on the dead Spartans never turned up. Even the sights were an anticlimax – bones of buildings, hordes of charabancs; the glory that was.

Sex had not yet reared its head, so I didn’t have that distraction. But I remember two other excitements. One was retsina, in unsuitable quantities, the other an experience in Athens when I wandered off alone. There was a demonstration; something, I imagine, to do with collapsing Colonels. It sucked me in and swept me along – bewildered at first, trying to catch hold of something familiar, then encouraged by smiles and guiding hands – until I fell in step, into the rhythm, and ended up chanting with the best of them. When the procession dispersed, having gone nowhere in particular, I was lost, thrilled and intoxicated.

Roumeli had the same effect when I first read it a dozen or so years later; it still does, reading it again another couple of decades on. One is drawn in and immediately disorientated. Who is the outlandish figure in a hairy kilt and hobnailed Ali Baba boots who takes us into the first chapter? A Sarakatsán nomad, apparently . . . The appendix on these people gleefully offers sixteen conflicting derivations for the name. Casting around for the familiar, I plumped for ‘Saracen’, for many features of Sarakatsán life rang bells: the poetry about Turkkilling, for example; the public exposition of bloodied nuptial bed linen; the censing of mothers after birth with nasty-smelling smoke. There were more, and all may be found in the bottom corner of Arabia where I live. But what about the wearing of clothes back to front as a sign of mourning? I had come across that, too

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About the contributor

Tim Mackintosh-Smith fled the Classics for the Arab world following an overdose of Virgil at Oxford. Shortly afterwards he moved to the Yemeni capital San’a, where he is currently writing about fourteenth-century India.

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